WASHINGTON &

Millions of acres of the country's largest national forest would be open for logging and other development under a Bush administration forest management plan released Friday, a move critics said will hurt wildlife and destroy pristine lands.




Under the plan, about 2.4 million acres of roadless areas within Alaska's 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest could be used for logging and building roads, critics said. They described the plan, and similar efforts in Idaho and Colorado, as an attempt by the Bush administration to help the timber industry by circumventing federal court rulings protecting roadless areas.




"Time and again, these guys have had to rewrite this plan, and they just keep coming back with the same answer," said Franz Matzner, forest and public lands advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Logging levels are way down, and there is just no demand for this timber. The Bush administration is just dedicated in its last months to go after the roadless rule one forest at a time."




Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor said the plan would provide livelihoods for state residents while protecting the health of the forest and ensuring opportunities for recreation and solitude.




"There may be disappointment that the (allowable timber production) hasn't increased or diminished, depending on your viewpoint," Bschor said in a statement. "What is significant in the amended plan, however, is our commitment to the state of Alaska to provide an economic timber sale program which will allow the current industry to stabilize, and for an integrated timber industry to become established."




The dispute is the latest skirmish in a years-long battle between environmentalists and the Bush administration over the Clinton-era "roadless rule," which put nearly a third of the national forests &

about 60 million acres &

off-limits to most development.




Early in the administration, timber companies and several Western states challenged the rule, winning in lower federal courts but losing on appeal. In 2005, the administration issued a new rule that allowed governors to decide which land in national forests is suited for development. But after a series of lawsuits by environmentalists, federal courts overturned the Bush effort and reinstated the Clinton-era rule.